A few weeks ago, on a single Friday afternoon, I had not one, but two rather unsettling experiences.
I'll tell the second story first, because it's less involved. I was asked the question (this is verbatim), "How do you call the person who learns you how to driving?"*
What was so unsettling about this? The question was asked by a teacher. An English teacher.
I may or may not have mentioned before that language teachers seem to vary widely in terms of their competency in the language they are supposed to teach. And I certainly don't mean to imply that this is an issue restricted to France; I'm sure there are similar situations in many places, but this is the only one I can attest to from firsthand experience. What I know is that working with seven teachers gives me an interesting window on just how varied the language skills of foreign language teachers can be. There are those with heavy French accents and lots of mispronunciation, and those with strange accents that aren't really French but certainly aren't neutral, and those with almost-perfect British accents. There are those who speak very clearly and precisely, trying to make a point of getting things right even if they mispronounce some words or use some odd grammatical constructs, and there are those who toss off their sentences quickly and casually whether they're right or wrong. There are those who are hesitant when they run into something they're not sure how to say when talking to me, and those who just make something up.
There are those who are essentially fluent--and those whose level is hardly above that of some of their students.
It's depressing sometimes, especially because the teachers for whom this is true aren't necessarily bad teachers in other respects. Indeed, this particular woman is probably an excellent teacher in terms of actual teaching skills. I've seen her managing students, I've seen her lesson materials, I know from my own experience that she is incredibly kind and patient. When I work with her classes, she and I often collaborate on lesson plans that tie in to what she's been teaching, which is a win for everyone--she's still off the hook for an hour or two a week, but I'm also getting input and feedback from an experienced teacher and her students are getting the benefit of more organization and consistency than those of teachers who give me free rein and little info. I like her a lot, and I respect her a lot, and I cringe a little bit every time I think about the fact that she probably speaks French to me (even in front of the students, which hardly any teachers usually do) as much because her English is bad as because I'm supposed to be learning French.
It also just mystifies me a bit. What does one have to do to become a foreign-language teacher? Surely there are language-specific qualifications. Surely there's an exam of some sort, and surely it involves speaking. How does one convince the powers that be to let him or her teach something he or she isn't even very good at? Again, I'm sure this doesn't only happen in France, but I still don't understand it. The idea that anyone would allow me, at my current level, to teach French is almost laughable to me. I've thought about it, and I don't think I would allow myself to teach French at this stage. If nothing else, I'm horrified by the prospect of passing on my terrible pronunciation. And yet if this woman makes her living as an English teacher, then it would appear that I might, by someone's standards, be qualified to teach at least beginning French. Even though there are still days when I can barely string a sentence together.
* Throw in a thick French accent and poor pronunciation skills and I actually mistakenly heard "drawing" the first time and answered, "an art teacher," leading to further confusion.